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Far from Heavenly, but it still has something...
on 30 April 2012
Some studios never learn. Having nearly bankrupted the studio when Frank Capra's 1937 version went massively over budget and struggled to recoup its investment as they desperately cut the film again and again to get more shows in, 36 years later Columbia Pictures did the same thing all over again with producer Ross Hunter's version of Lost Horizon, this time adding songs in an era when musicals were bombing left right and centre and filling the cast with people who couldn't sing. It's not the first musical adaptation - there had already been a flop Broadway musical in 1956 and a TV version in 1960 called Shangri-La - but it's the one that has gone down in movie infamy that extensive re-editing did nothing to stem. The cuts started after the first previews, losing 23 minutes and most of its $12.8m budget by the time it ended its run, but surprisingly Sony have restored the film to its full 149-minute roadshow version in a rather splendid DVD-R release and a limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time that even more surprisingly features a wealth of extras.
It's easy to see the appeal of the project in the turbulent 70s, when studios were torn between low-budget films aimed at the disaffected youth market and big-budget flops trying to lure their parents back into theatres with nostalgia. Despite hints at the Vietnam war and political unrest back in the civilised world, it's the same story with the same universal appeal to people's desire for an eternal haven of peace on Earth that never translated into ticket sales when dramatised. It's at its best outside Shangri-La when it plays a glossy drama, with Peter Finch's philosophical diplomat and his sundry companions - younger brother Michael York, George Kennedy's engineer, Sally Kellerman's depressed reporter and Bobby Van's song and dance man - finding their last plane out of an Asian civil war hijacked and crashing in the mountains of Tibet. Luckily it's not long before John Gielgud turns up in bad Tibetan makeup from the nearest Lamasery and, after a trek through the ice they find themselves in Camelot, which has had a superficial facelift since Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave moved out and is now calling itself Shangri-La...
And that's when the problems start. Capra's film struggled to find the drama in the middle section as the valley's secret was uncovered and its hero faced with the choice of a haven from strife in a world where time is almost meaningless or returning to the chaos of the modern world where his ideas meet with approving sounds but are never acted upon. It had been assumed that some of the problems were down to the re-editing, but the restored version does little to improve matters. Perhaps what's most curious about it is how appropriately relaxed the pace is while at the same time never getting round to showing things we really should be seeing or finding out about - the cause of Kellerman's despair, the growing romance between Finch and Liv Ullman (who doesn't get a proper scene with Finch until 111 minutes into the film!) or York and Olivia Hussey, the growing suspicions about their arrival in Shangri-La... Instead it just marks time with the odd musical number along the way. And there's at least one very odd musical number back in the picture now.
The most notorious of the cuts has been restored, the quite jaw dropping fertility dance performed in the middle of the Living Together, Growing Together number by what looks like a bunch of oiled-up refugees from Muscle Beach in dayglo orange loincloths. Camp doesn't even begin to describe it, Hermes Pan's choreography (basically ripping off the opening of La Bayadaire without the exciting bits) not just coming out of the closet but chopping it up into matchsticks and making tiny pink parasols out of them. And it's still one of the dance highlights of the film thanks to cast who often fare even worse dancing than they do singing - poor old Liv Ullman's big number simply sees her waving her arms and legs from side to side in a slightly less ambitious version of the `white guy dance' demonstrated by uncoordinated drunken dudes in nightclubs around the world every weekend.
Burt Bacharach and Hal David's songs are less than outstanding, to put it mildly, the kind of 70s easy listening where the word easy seems not just wildly overoptimistic but downright misleading. On the verge of dissolving their partnership at the time, they reek of contractual obligation with odd moments of professionalism that almost work while never rising above the standard of a weak 70s TV variety show (even Ross Hunter acknowledged "it was a bum score"). The ideas aren't bad - one duet has two characters singing their thoughts over an innocuous scene - but the execution often is: after 40 song-free minutes, the film jumps into the first big number, The World is a Circle, so clumsily it's like someone got the reels in the wrong order and turned the volume up to 11 while Peter Finch's big soul-searching number is an exercise in agony as he changes key mid-word and can't even talk his way through the quieter moments a la Rex Harrison (he's reputedly dubbed, but for some reason they seem to have chosen his voice on the grounds of sounding like Finch rather than being able to sing any better). Worse, they're mostly showstoppers in the worst sense, having so little to do with plot or character that you could cut most of them out and never miss a thing.
Even technically it's less impressive than a film that cost so much should be. While Columbia's epics often had a handsome look, once this gets away from the decent mountain location work and arrives at Shangri-La, the film has more of the in-house look of a cheap Universal comedy film from the late 60s-early 70s, which isn't so surprising considering producer Ross Hunter and forgotten A-list director Charles Jarrott were both big noises on the Universal lot. Yet somehow, despite the miscasting, despite the bad singing, despite the under-developed screenplay and all the missed opportunities, some of the magical yearning of James Hilton's novel survives, making the film a curious mix between a guilty pleasure and an underdog you want to give a second chance. It doesn't repay that chance particularly well, but there's still something there...
While it's a shame that Columbia have only released this special edition as a Region 1 NTSC manufactured-on-demand DVD-R, it's an impressive widescreen transfer and the extras are plentiful and welcome: an alternate version of one musical number, I Come to You, vintage featurette Ross Hunter on the Road to Shangri-La, Ross Hunter's introductions to a promo reel presentation for US cinema managers, 8 song demos by Burt Bacharach, 2 TV spots, teaser trailer and full theatrical trailer. All but the introductions to the promo reel (which largely repeat material in the featurette in between telling you how great a scene that's no longer included is) have been carried over to Twilight Time's excellent region-free limited edition (3000 copies only) Blu-ray pressing, which also includes an isolated score track, booklet and an excellent widescreen transfer and is definitely the version for fans to track down.